This is the sequel to Relationship Interview #8.
For their fifth official date since meeting through Find The One, a relationship web site, Bernice comes for breakfast at Mark’s house on a sunny morning in early March and brings her friends Marlene and Angela, both of whom also attended Date #4.
Bernice is fifty-seven and manages a theatre company. Mark is sixty-four and edits how-to books and murder mysteries. Marlene is sixty, French, an artist and actor, and Angela is sixty-three, an accountant originally from New Jersey.
They gather on Mark’s backyard terrace, and because the pandemic is still raging, the women, who are in a bubble together, sit at one table and Mark sits at another. They keep their masks on until Mark serves the pancakes and coffee, and when everyone is seated, they remove their masks.
Mark: Here we are together again.
Angela: I’m so happy we are. Things ended too abruptly yesterday.
Marlene: I’m happy, too. You make very good coffee, Mark. Many people don’t, you know. They think they do, but they don’t.
Mark: I try to buy the freshest beans. Maybe that’s the trick.
Bernice: I love these pancakes. Old family recipe?
Mark: No that’s a recent acquisition from my friend Denise. She’s gluten free and these use millet and sorghum and tapioca flour.
Marlene: So delicate. Are you gluten free? I could not do without my French bread.
Mark: I’m experimenting. Less wheat seems to suit me. Less lots of things seem to suit me these days as I ramble through my sixties.
Angela: I know what you mean.
They chat a while more about dietary matters before Mark steers the conversation in another direction.
Mark: So last night when Bernice came by, we spoke of friendship and she mentioned the rules of friendship. And I wonder what those are.
Bernice: I meant how friends treat each other differently than people in relationships often treat each other.
Mark: I sense what you mean, but I’m unclear about how friendship rules differ from relationship rules.
Angela: They shouldn’t. That’s what ruins most relationships. They don’t treat each other like friends.
Marlene: The two times in my life I married, I chose men I assumed were my friends. But once we were married, they seemed to forget we were separate people. They began to take offense at things I liked and what I said and what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go, and they could not see how they were trying to make me into some kind of female echo of them. So I got out of those marriages and have not been tempted to marry again.
Bernice: I would never tell Marlene or Angela what they should do with their lives or how they should dress or what they should or shouldn’t like. But that’s what people in relationships do to each other all the time.
Mark: So would one rule be: Never Criticize Each Other?
Marlene: Yes, because we must accept our friends for who they are. We like them as they are. That’s why we chose them to be our friend and they chose us, not because we want to change them into someone else.
Bernice: Something happens to people when they identify as a couple instead of as two individuals, as if they believe they own the other person now. Doesn’t happen to everybody, but it happens to lots of people.
Angela: It happened to my ex-husband. After we got married, he absolutely thought he owned me and he was constantly trying to make me adhere to his idea of how things should be. And I put up with that for nineteen years until our daughter graduated from high school, and then it was divorce him or die. And I’m not exaggerating.
Mark: So… No Owning Each Other would be another rule of friendship.
Bernice: No owning each other and no being cruel to each other and no hiding things from each other.
Mark: And no being afraid of each other.
Marlene: Why would you be friends with someone you feared? You could never be yourself.
Mark: Why would you marry someone you feared, as so many people do?
Bernice: Because the rules governing marriage and the rules governing friendships aren’t the same rules. They should be, but they aren’t.
Mark: Even now? In the so-called advanced societies?
Marlene: Did your marriages follow the rules of friendship?
Mark: No. My marriages followed the rules of addict and enabler, I the enabler.
Angela: Mine, too.
Marlene: Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who was also your friend?
Mark: No, but I’m only sixty-four. Surely there’s still time.
Bernice: Theoretically, but maybe not. Maybe just the fact that you’re still actively pursuing a relationship means you’re not looking for a friend. You’re looking for a mate.
Mark: I can’t look for both in the same person?
Bernice: You can. You are. I’m just saying you might not find them because you’re looking for both.
Mark: Are you suggesting I stop looking?
Bernice: No. I’m suggesting I stop looking. That’s why I said I wanted to be your friend with the rules of friendship. That’s the gift you gave me, Mark. You let me play out my usual neurotic bullshit in relation to a man who also happens to be a fine human being, with both of us constrained by the pandemic, so I could finally understand that until I can be totally comfortable with you as my friend, there’s no point in trying to have a relationship with you. I’ll just revert to my old patterns, and the pretense of a healthy relationship will vanish.
Mark: Oh but not this time, Bernice. This time will be different. I’m not like those other guys. I’m something special. I’m your knight in shining armor. I’ll be your best friend and your dream lover and your muse, and while I’m at it I’ll give you the secret to eternal life and the five sure ways to make a million dollars with no up-front investment.
The women laugh.
Angela: You’re a good cook, too.
Marlene: Friends don’t want anything from their friends except to be appreciated for who they are. If a person wants more than this from you… beware.
Angela: Friends help each other. They don’t hinder.
Mark: Do they judge each other?
Marlene: Of course. We’re human. But then we stop judging because this is our friend.
Bernice: Unless we think they’re going terribly wrong or doing something self-destructive. Then we’ll say something. We’ll intervene as lovingly as we can.
Mark: What about sex?
Bernice: What about sex?
Mark: Well… it seems to me if we eliminate sex or sexual desire from the equation, a relationship would be indistinguishable from friendship. I, for instance, could join your bubble and be one of four people, not one man with three women. We could be four friends. But if you and I became lovers, we would be a relationship and two women. Yes?
Marlene: Yes, that’s true.
Mark: Even if I was a friend of your troika for years and years, the minute I became lovers with one of you, or for that matter the minute two of you became lovers, then the equation would change, because in this society relationships outweigh friendships.
Bernice: Maybe so.
Marlene: Not maybe. Yes, they do.
Angela: They shouldn’t, but they do.
Mark: So then applying the rules of friendship to a relationship will make the relationship better, but it will alter all pre-existing friendships. And that, it seems to me, is tragic.
Marlene: Not necessarily. If you and one of my friends are happy in a relationship, my friendship may be altered but not degraded, and I would gain you as a friend.
Angela: Friends want their friends to be happy.
Marlene: The truth is, close friends, friends like the three of us, are in a relationship, only without sex. We didn’t ask anyone else to be in our bubble, though we all have other friends. So the difference is not as distinct as you imply.
Mark: I’m not implying anything. I’m trying to understand how I might be in a relationship with someone in an intimate trio such as yours while abiding by the rules of friendship. How would that work?
Bernice: We can’t know until we become friends.
Mark: You and I? Or all four of us?
Bernice: You and I in the context of all four of us.
Mark: So now I’m dating the three of you?
Angela: Friends don’t so much date as do things together.
Marlene: Friends spend time together, but we don’t call it dating.
Mark: So are you inviting me to become a friend of your bubble?
Bernice: I am inviting you to be my friend. I won’t speak for Marlene or Angela.
Angela: Based on this breakfast alone, I’d love to be your friend.
Marlene: I like you very much, Mark, and I would be happy to be your friend, though at the moment you are more Bernice’s friend than my friend, but I’m enjoying getting to know you.
Mark: (looks at Bernice) So are you and I done dating?
Bernice: I guess so. But not done being friends. If you want to keep being friends.
Mark: I do. Though this isn’t how I imagined things evolving between us, but I much prefer it to never seeing you again. (looks at Angela) And I really like you, Angela. (looks at Marlene) And I really like you, Marlene. So…(raises coffee cup) here’s to our nascent friendships. May they mature into something wonderful.
They all raise their cups and drink.
Marlene: I love that you used the word nascent.
Angela: So do I.
Bernice: He’s such a poet.
Mark: (to Bernice) It may take me a while to stop focusing on you as the woman I desire.
Marlene: Why stop? She’s a lovely woman.
Mark: Well so are you? Shall I focus my desire on you, too?
Marlene: I don’t know. I might like it. But I might not. I suppose it would depend on the quality of your focus.
Angela: She would like it.
Bernice: How could you not focus your desire on her? She’s gorgeous.
Marlene: (to Bernice) You’re sweet to say so, darling.
Mark: I’m confused.
Bernice: (laughs) Welcome to my world.
Marlene: Shall we have lunch on Saturday at my house? It’s supposed to be sunny and warm. Are you free, Mark?
Mark: Free as a bird. What can I bring?
Bernice: He makes a fabulous guacamole.
Angela: Oh bring that. I love guacamole.
Marlene: Yes, and I will make chicken enchiladas.
Bernice: And I’ll bring a salad and chips for the guacamole.
Angela: And I’ll bring the tomato rice and refried beans.
Mark: (gazes at Bernice) You want to come here first and we’ll walk over together?
Bernice: I’d love to.
Marlene: Shall we say noon?
Mark: Noon is perfect.
Angela: You know I have to tell you something, Mark. I don’t know if you realize what an unusual man you are, but you are. I keep thinking you’re gonna just throw up your hands and say, ‘Enough already. I can’t handle this. It didn’t work. I’ll go back to the web site and hunt for somebody else.’ But you don’t. You’re open to what’s happening, which is, of course, a testament to how much you like Bernice, but it’s also a testament to your resiliency and your curiosity and your openness and your goodness. You’re really a good person, and that’s why I said I would love to be your friend.
Mark: (puts a hand on his heart) Thank you Angela. Imagine me hugging you.
Angela: (laughs) I do. And it’s nice. You’re a good hugger. I knew you would be.